Vaping related deaths and illness, spark political action

Photo by Dani Ramos

BRANDON — As new rules regulating vaping have just gone into effect this month in Vermont, even more may be on the way.

The Trump administration announced on Wednesday, Sept. 11 that it plans to ban the sale of flavored e-cigarettes. This ban is coming on the heels of sickness and death thought to be a result of vaping.

The first case of vaping-associated severe respiratory illness in a Vermont resident was confirmed by the Vermont Department of Health on Monday. Five other possible cases are currently being investigated within the state.

As of Sept. 11, 2019, 380 confirmed and probable cases of vaping-related illnesses and six deaths have been reported to the Center for Disease Control from 36 states and one territory, according to the Department of Health. The majority of patients have a history of using e-cigarette products containing THC, and many have reported using both THC and nicotine.

“This is a serious disease that can be deadly,” said Vermont Health Commissioner Mark Levine. “The only common link so far is vaping. Until we know more about the specific cause of these illnesses, we strongly recommend that if you vape – stop now, and if you don’t vape – don’t start.”

Vermont’s Legislature passed several bills to restrict smoking and vaping this past session.

“I feel that vaping and e-cigarettes are a huge danger to the health of Vermonters — both young and old,” said Rep. Stephanie Jerome, D-Brandon. “I am proud of the work we have done in the legislature this session, but clearly more needs to get done as we learn about the dangers of vaping.”

As part of a three-pronged strategy to make it more difficult for youth to obtain and afford tobacco products, legislators approved S.86, which raises the legal age for buying and using cigarettes, electronic cigarettes, and tobacco products from 18 to 21 years old. H.26 ends Internet sales of e-cigarettes, and H.47 places a 92 percent excise tax on them. The Tobacco-21 law went into effect on Sept. 1.

“In 2017–2018, e-cigarette and tobacco use among high school and middle school students was the biggest one-year spike of any substance in nearly 50 years and prompted the U.S. Surgeon General to declare a public health crisis,” said Jerome. “The House received testimony from administrators and educators about students’ nicotine withdrawal, parents unaware of their child’s dependency, violence related to vaping sales, disruptions to the learning environment, and hours spent dealing with the disciplinary implications.”

Rep. Butch Shaw, R-Pittsford, said he has been following the national news regarding e-cigarettes and was in the information gathering process right now, but said he was startled to learn of the recent cases of severe health problems and several deaths attributed to the use of these products.

“I am pleased to see the federal government taking notice of the ‘pending epidemic’ of health problems, especially among our youth,” Shaw said, adding that looking into the problem was probably not enough. “But as in all things governmental, data drives decisions and I hope the current federal administration is serious when they say something must be done to regulate the industry. My personal view is that I would rather have this done on a federal level and then we would have a 50-state solution and not a patchwork, state-by-state approach to solving this important public health issue.”

Michigan is the only state that currently prohibits sales of flavored e-cigs, but other states’ leaders have called for their legislators to address the issue.

“Should Vermont ban the use of these products entirely is an open-ended question that the Legislature will surely look into in the next session,” Shaw said. “I do look forward to this discussion in Montpelier while we await action from the feds. If no action is taken on the federal level, I think we will need to look at the Michigan law for guidance.”

Vaping in schools

Nationally, more than 5 million minors, mostly of high school age, have reported using e-cigarettes. A recent study reported almost 25 percent of high school students have tried them.

Jeanńe Collins, superintendent of RNESU, said she was glad to hear the government was taking steps to curtail the prevalence of e-cigs.

“As in most schools, vaping is a major issue in our high school,” Collins said. “Flavored e-cigs are like candy to our students, who do not understand both the addictive nature and the damaging effects of vaping.”

Collins said the school district has a drug and alcohol counselor in the school who works full time trying to prevent students from using any drug, including vaping, and helping those who do use.

She said Otter Valley Union High has held a parent night on vaping to help parents understand the dangers and that vaping is not “a safer form of cigarettes,” as the students often believe.

“We treat vaping paraphernalia the same as drug paraphernalia according to our policies,” Collins said. “Education, responses, and partnering with parents are our primary ways of helping to prevent teens from starting and helping those who have.”

“However, the easy access currently to vaping as well as the teen culture that believes it is not harmful is hard to beat,” she added. “I am very concerned with the recent illnesses and deaths that appear to be related to vaping and am glad to know policies are being discussed across our country to protect our children.”

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